Is Amer­ica over­run by il­le­gal im­mi­grants? Num­bers say no

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

With the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate heat­ing up you’d think that the U.S. was be­sieged by grow­ing num­bers of il­le­gal im­mi­grants. But you’d be wrong.

De­spite the height­ened rhetoric and the blood­cur­dling vit­riol sur­round­ing the is­sue, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion has ac­tu­ally de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly over the past few years. Jour­nal­ists like to char­ac­ter­ize the anger over im­mi­gra­tion as a re­sponse to facts on the ground — i.e. peo­ple are in­un­dated and in­censed — but the num­bers don’t bear them out.

In fact, the op­po­site is true. Ac­cord­ing to a Fe­bru­ary re­port by the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, the num­ber of il­le­gal im­mi­grants liv­ing in the United States ac­tu­ally dropped by a whop­ping 1 mil­lion be­tween 2008 and 2009, the sharpest de­crease in 30 years. It was the sec­ond year of de­clin­ing num­bers.

Like­wise, the Border Pa­trol re­ports that ap­pre­hen­sions are down by more than 60 per­cent since 2000, to 550,000 last year, the low­est num­ber in 35 years, even though the border is more tightly con­trolled than ever. As Wil­liam Fin­negan wrote in last week’s New Yorker, “The south­ern border, far from be­ing ‘un­se­cured,’ is in bet­ter shape than it has been for years — bet­ter man­aged and less por­ous.”

And there’s more. De­spite the drum­beat about hordes of un­doc­u­mented Mex­i­cans who have come north to take our jobs, con­sider this: Ac­cord­ing to the Pew His­panic Cen­ter, be­tween 2005 and 2008, the num­ber of Mex­i­can mi­grants ar­riv­ing in the U.S. ac­tu­ally de­clined by 40 per­cent.

It’s not only the num­ber of Mex­i­can il­le­gal im­mi­grants that has dropped. The fact that the U.S. econ­omy is strug­gling has dis­cour­aged high-skilled im­mi­grants from around the globe from look­ing for jobs in Amer­ica, and the flow of ap­pli­cants for H1-B visas, or work per­mits, has slowed. Be­fore the re­ces­sion, the en­tire 85,000 H1-B an­nual quota would be filled within days of the ap­pli­ca­tion date on the first of April. For fis­cal year 2010, the quota wasn’t reached un­til De­cem­ber 2009.

Fi­nally, the Cen­sus Bureau’s Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey last fall re­vealed a his­toric de­cline in the per­cent­age of U.S. res­i­dents who are for­eign-born — from 12.6 per­cent in 2007 to 12.5 per­cent in 2008. That rep­re­sents only about 40,000 peo­ple numer­i­cally, but it is the first time since the 1970 cen­sus — 40 years ago — that the for­eign-born per­cent­age of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion has gone down.

So, in the face of all this data show­ing that le­gal and il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion is down dra­mat­i­cally, what’s all the fuss about?

Why has the de­bate turned so nasty? Why does it seem worse than it did in 1994, dur­ing the de­bate over Propo­si­tion 187, Cal­i­for­nia’s anti-im­mi­grant bal­lot mea­sure?

The easy an­swer, of course, is that the econ­omy is tough and, his­tor­i­cally, peo­ple have looked for tar­gets to blame for their feel­ings of im­po­tence.

But to­day I think there are other con­tribut­ing fac­tors.

The po­lit­i­cal dis­course over­all is pretty hor­rific, and though im­mi­gra­tion has al­ways brought out the worst in peo­ple, to­day’s po­lar­ized cli­mate only makes mat­ters worse.

Fur­ther­more, the right wing, where much of the anti-im­mi­grant frenzy comes from, no longer has an au­thor­i­ta­tive voice of rea­son press­ing for de­cency on the is­sue. Four years ago, af­ter Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush un­suc­cess­fully launched his own ef­fort at com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form, he warned against “harsh, ugly rhetoric.” To­day, Bush is hardly heard from and the right has an “open bor­ders” pol­icy on over-the-top rhetoric.

Strug­gling news­pa­pers seek­ing to en­gage read­ers at any cost are also part of the prob­lem.

Whereas racist rants were once con­fined to mar­ginal web­sites, many pa­pers have now opened their on­line com­ments sec­tion to, well, com­plete nut jobs. Al­low­ing vit­ri­olic racial rhetoric to re­main on a main­stream web­site is to give it a level of ac­cept­abil­ity.

Just last week, in re­sponse to my col­umn on the so-called burqa ban in France, a ra­bid com­menter pro­posed that all those cross­ing the U.S.-Mex­ico border with­out pa­pers should be shot on sight. Nice. Such “di­a­logue” not only pushes out rea­son­able peo­ple, it em­bold­ens the un­rea­son­able ones. By al­low­ing it to be posted, news­pa­pers are pre­sid­ing over the main­stream­ing of anti-im­mi­grant hate speech.

There might be those who see ha­tred as a jus­ti­fi­able means to an end. Per­haps they hope that all this harsh rhetoric will keep even more il­le­gal im­mi­grants at home. But they’d be silly to think that such in­vec­tive only makes life harder for im­mi­grants. Un­for­tu­nately, it also ac­tively de­grades our cul­ture, our pub­lic square and our democ­racy. An il­le­gal im­mi­grant who was de­ported to Mex­ico early Wed­nes­day holds a bag con­tain­ing his be­long­ings in No­gales, Sonora. Con­tro­ver­sial parts of Ari­zona’s im­mi­gra­tion law, set to take ef­fect to­day, were blocked by a fed­eral judge Wed­nes­day.

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